Why there is no Portuguese word for “Sauerkraut”

Pardon my French

The phrase
The phrase “Pardon my French” is popular enough that it is common on T-shirts. Buy your own!
Last week my brother was telling me a story that took place at his work.  Somebody had, jokingly, insulted a coworker using a long string of profanity.

“What did you say?” the recipient had retorted, pretending to be offended.

“Oh nothing. That’s just the Portuguese word for ‘sauerkraut’.”

We’ve all made jokes like this.  The phrase “Pardon my French” has even entered the English vernacular, as a way to ostensibly disguise profanity.

There is no translation

“There probably isn’t even a word for sauerkraut in Portuguese,” was my response when my brother told me the story. It turns out I was wrong (sort of–more on that in a moment). The Portuguese word for sauerkraut is “chucrute“. But would you believe me that there isn’t an English word for sauerkraut?

“Wait a minute!” you may be thinking. “You just said (wrote) the English word for sauerkraut. it’s sauerkraut!”

And you’d be right. Sort of.

“Sauerkraut” is actually what we call a loanword. Loanwords are incredibly common in many languages. In English they are especially common for names of foreign food items–such as “taco,” “spaghetti,” “sushi,” and, of course, “sauerkraut.”

If you’re thinking “Okay, so sauerkraut is a loanword from German. So what? Now it’s an English word, too!” you’d also be right. Sort of.

Jar of Chucrute / Sauerkraut sold by Hemmer in Brazil.
Jar of Chucrute / Sauerkraut sold by Hemmer in Brazil.
Remember how a moment ago I said I was “sort of wrong” about Portuguese having a word for sauerkraut? Well, Portuguese has the word “chucrute” which means the same thing as sauerkraut in German (and English). But it’s not really a Portuguese word, either. It’s also a loanword. This time from French. “choucroute” is the French word for “A dish made by fermenting finely chopped cabbage”.

But wait! It’s not really a French word, either! The French borrowed the word from the Alsatian dialect of German, which in turn got the word from German ‘sauerkraut’.

A cabbage by any other name

You might think that of the languages thus far discussed, English, Portuguese, French, Alsatain and German, only English directly borrowed the word from another language. The others each made slight changes to the word along the way. In reality, English made some changes, too, which is clear if you compare the English pronunciation with the German pronunciation. And in fact, almost every loan word changes at least a little when it moves from one language to another. Ask a native Mexican to say “taco” and it will sound slightly different than when a native English speaker does it.

  • American English “sauerkraut”
  • German “Sauerkraut”

“Loanword” is not a black-and-white concept. There is an entire spectrum of loanword classifications. The “strictest” form of a loan word is a classified as a “foreign word”–where we use a foreign word directly, without integrating it into the language–like “sauerkraut”.

When Alsatian turned “Sauerkraut” into “Sürkrüt” “French turned “Sürkrüt” into “choucroute”, and Portuguese turned “choucroute” into “chucrute,” these were all examples of a slightly more liberal “loan word” processes.

Language Boundaries

So what’s the point of all of this?

A typical view of languages, at least from a mono-lingual American viewpoint, is somewhat analogous to a map.

A typical view of languages, with distinct borders between them.

We tend to compartmentalize languages. “Dog” is English. “Gato” is Spanish. “Je t’aime” is French. “空” is Japanese.

I prefer to take a different view. And I encourage you to change your thinking and join me.

The Fluidity of Language

As we have seen above, with a brief study of everyone’s favorite fermented cabbage dish (no offense, kimchi lovers!), languages are intertwined. Almost all of English vocabulary comes from other languages–roughly 45% from French. That is to say, there are very few truly “English” words–words of actual English origin. What we call the “English language” is constantly changing. It’s always being influenced by other languages–and in turn it is influencing other languages.

I think rather than compartmentalizing language, as we do national boundaries on a map, it’s much more accurate and useful, to think of languages as flowing together.

Language flows like paint swirls. Where one language ends and another begins is often impossible to determine.
Language flows like paint swirls. Where one language ends and another begins is often impossible to determine.

Thinking of languages with defined boundaries is harmful to learning about new languages. It creates a “here” and “there” mentality. “I’m here. I speak English. Spanish is over there. It’s far away. It’s difficult.”

Once you make that mental shift to seeing all languages as related, it makes your world both larger and smaller simultaneously. It makes the world larger in the sense that you realize you can never learn all of our “own” language. English is a huge language. And it changes every day (and that’s not just rhetoric! It is constantly changing in real, observable ways!).

It also makes the world smaller by realizing that other languages are not so distant. Spanish isn’t “another language”. It’s more like “another shade” of language. You already know a lot of Spanish without realizing it (burrito, café, insubordinación). You also know a lot of French (café, fiancée, proposition), German (sauerkraut, gesundheit, fest), Italian (a cappella, finale, riviera), and Japanese (豆腐 (tofu), 醤油 (soy), 禅 (zen)). Don’t be afraid to learn more.

Passionate about Language

It is this mindset that lead me to subtitle this blog “Passionate about Language” rather than “Passionate about Languages.” While it’s convenient to talk about languages as distinct entities, as a student of language, I believe it’s much more appropriate to think about language as a single art form.

Glossophile? Glossa-what?

Editor’s note: This article is also available in Spanish.
Nota del editor: Este artícolo también está disponible en español.
¿Glosófilo? ¿Gloso-qué?

As I was thinking about launching this blog, I knew I would need to come up with name.  I wanted something short. Something memorable.  Something meaningful.  I spent several days brainstorming with my wife and some friends, and we had come up with a few ideas.  But nothing felt  quite right.

SapiosexualThen a few days ago, while I was working, the word “sapiosexual” came to mind.  It’s a relatively new word, a neologism, apparently “invented” in 1998. And for most language purists, it’s poorly formulated, and not especially meaningful. But the touted definition is:

sapiosexual noun
a person who is sexually attracted to intelligence in others

So this word got me thinking down the path of forming a word from ancient roots to convey the message I wanted.

Looking for a Latin name

If “sapiosexual” is a person who is attracted to intelligence, what word describes someone attracted to languages?  Using the Latin root for language, I’d have “linguasexual”, or the Latin root for speaking, I’d have “loquosexual”.  The first is clearly out because “lingua” also means tongue, and that would be the first meaning to come to mind when reading the word.  The second would also be confused, at least among American English speakers, with attraction for crazy people (thanks to the word “loco”, which we borrowed from Spanish).

And all of this ignores the fact that I’m not really interested in writing a sexual blog at all! (Never mind that most people, probably erroneously, don’t think “sapiosexual” is an overtly sexual term.)

Looking for a Greek name

So my next stop was Greek roots.  The Greek root φίλος (phílos), meaning “friend” or “beloved”, was my starting point.  We have many derivative terms in English. An audiophile is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction. A Francophile has a strong affection for all things French. And of course I’m sure you can think of a few other -philias, many of which are not appropriate for work.

So one of -phile or -philia was to be my suffix. I still needed a prefix.  Greek for “language” (as well as “tongue”) is γλώσσα (glóssa). Its from this root where we get terms like “glossary”.

Narrowing it down: Glosso-

I began searching for words formed from these roots.  Glossophilia is an established word.

Glossophobia is the fear of speaking–specifically in public.

Xenoglossophobia is the fear of foreign languages (not a problem I face!).

With these precedents, I knew I was on to something.

Arriving at Glossophile

I simply had to replace the -phobia in glossophobia with my chosen suffixes, -philia and phile.  Of these two, Glossophilia is the more common as a word but it also sounds (to me, at least) more sexual than I prefer. And the domain name glossophilia.com is already taken anyway.  So I settled on Glossophile.

I felt like “The Glossophile” had a better ring than simply “Glossophile.” Thus the name of the blog.

So borrowing from the definition of audiophile, I have accepted the following definition for glossophile, and thus the name of my blog:

glossophile noun
a person who is enthusiastic about language

I am a glossophile. I am enthusiastic about language. And this blog is about my enthusiasm about language. And not just foreign language, or I might have called it “The Xenoglossophile.” I’m enthusiastic about my native language, English, as well as the other languages I speak to varying degrees: Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I’m also enthusiastic about languages I don’t speak.

Mark Twain is one of America's favorite glossophiles.
One of America’s favorite glossophiles.

I hope you’re a glossophile, too. If you’re not enthusiastic about language, I hope you’ll stick around, and maybe some of my glossophilia can rub off on you. And don’t worry if you don’t speak more than one language. You can be enthusiastic about your own language, or about language in general. Many of the most famous glossophiles in history were mono-lingual!